Building a true living, working downtown

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There is a gaping opportunity on Lisbon Street for two private-sector developers to cooperatively strengthen and enliven the downtown in this city known for its private- and public-sector collaboration.

Following an arson that destroyed four all-but-abandoned downtown buildings just before Christmas, three of the buildings are now gone, and the fourth – the condemned New England Furniture building – is scheduled to come down shortly.

Fortunately, the owners of these buildings are active developers, each with a strong desire to foster a thriving downtown.

Rick Breton of Greely Capital LLC, co-owner of the buildings that have been carted off in rubble, has already said he would like to rebuild.

Tom Platz of Tim Corp. owns the soon-to-be-razed New England Furniture building and has demonstrated his commitment to revitalization through his varied Bates Mill projects.

Last January, Breton told the Sun Journal he planned to spend $1 million on his so-called Greely and Cressey buildings and the former Kora Temple, which might have included two new restaurants on the ground floors of these buildings. Work on that renovation had just begun when the fires were set.

Now, instead of pouring $1 million into renovation, Breton has spent $400,000 to bring the buildings (which collectively were valued at $135,850) down. The city is paying $165,000 to dismantle the New England Furniture building, taking responsibility for its removal after condemning the $154,550 structure as unsafe.

What these property owners will have left once the bricks and plasterboard are carted off is the land.

Platz hasn’t publicly expressed what he might do with his property.

Breton has been very clear.

“If we can do it, me and my partner want to rebuild it back to what it was. We like the building, we like the architecture and that’s why we bought it, and hopefully we can build it back the way it was,” he said of the former Marco’s location.

Problem is, rebuilding these buildings the way they were isn’t a simple matter of setting brick and steel back in place. The city’s building codes have changed dramatically since the original buildings were constructed, which means Breton and Platz will need to adhere to very strict codes, including installing elevators to access upper floors. It would be enormously costly for them to re-create four separate buildings.

Perhaps they shouldn’t. The buildings are gone, but the opportunity exists to make good and shared use of the now-vacant properties.

The city doesn’t need another parking garage or another Lisbon Street park. There are thousands of unused square feet awaiting commercial use, and large-scale retail isn’t likely to return to the downtown.

Lewiston needs more housing.

The Breton-Platz space, in a collaborative effort, could be transformed into moderately priced condominiums, wired for young professionals already working downtown. Or, perhaps mixed residential units to help dozens of elderly now waiting patiently for apartment units to open up throughout the Twin Cities.

By joining forces, Breton and Platz could share expenses – and perhaps an elevator – relieving the cost of meeting building codes that are much more demanding than when the lost properties were constructed. There is a ready parking garage on Canal Street that simply needs a gangway to access an abutting modern housing unit, providing the city with much-needed residences within walking distance of parks, the public library, restaurants, businesses, health care, the Colisee, and other amenities. A true living, working downtown.

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